Monday, July 26, 2010

A Very Uncommon Journey

The tour as described in the brochure:

The ultimate in scenery, comfort and adventure to Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National parks with fine hotels, complete sightseeing, fine dining and two great train rides, aboard the California Zephyr and the Empire Builder.

• Train travel from Chicago and the Midwest ... to Utah aboard the famed California Zephyr... From Chicago, guests enjoy the stunningly beautiful daylight passage through the Colorado Rockies...
 • Fully hosted from start to finish by professional tour manager that handles all the details.

The truth: When I informed the tour 'manager' that we had been given a room with one bed instead of two, he told us that we need to deal with the hotel ourselves. I told him I thought that was his job. He said if it happened again, that we should deal with the hotel. We again informed him we thought he should make sure it didn't happen again. Guess what? It happened in Jackson and we had to have the hotel owner correct it.

• Overnight luxury hotel stay in Provo, Utah at the Four Diamond-rated Provo Marriott with full breakfast.
 • Most meals including breakfast daily.

The truth: Other than when we were on the train, where meals were part of the roomette price, we only had two dinners provided in addition to breakfast. Furthermore, the breakfast at the inn at West Yellowstone was strictly continental with a hard-boiled egg thrown in. And the dinner in Jackson, Wyoming was without a doubt the worst food I have ever experienced. After a few bites, I threw it all out except for a spice cake that surprisingly was good.

• Complete sightseeing throughout including all admission fees and special treats such as the scenic float trip on the Snake River at Jackson Hole and the red open-air 'jammer buses' at Glacier National Park.

• Two-day visit to Jackson Hole/Grand Teton with raft trip on the Snake River and complete touring of Grand Teton National Park.

The truth: We arrived late in the afternoon, with only enough time to get ready for dinner that night.  If there was 'touring' of the Tetons the next day, I missed it. Yes, we drove by the mountains and visited Jenny Lake, but that is not 'complete touring'. Furthermore, the promotion on the bus for shopping at 'Coldwater Creek' was inappropriate in my opinion. I did not go to Jackson Hole to shop.

• Two-night stay in Yellowstone National Park at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel along with complete sightseeing including Old Faithful and Lake Yellowstone cruise.

The truth: Well, as part of the 'Exiled Eight' who were removed from the tour bus for an 'upgrade', we did not stay in Yellowstone, but rather in a small motel in West Yellowstone. How does a tour company remove an ill 84-year old man from a tour bus? The tour manager asked us to give up our front seats on the bus, so he could have the elderly couple up front. Then he sends him off? In addition, I did not appreciate being told that we were chosen because we booked early, when in fact other couples booked before us, and the real reason for sending us off on our own was because the company over-booked. Others on the tour resented our 'special treatment'. We were constantly telling the other 43 passengers that we were not 'upgraded' nor were we 'special'.

Because we stayed in West Yellowstone, we never saw the Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the reasons I booked the trip. And cruise? What cruise? Yes, when the itinerary arrived, there was no mention of the cruise, so why is it still in the brochure?

The only good thing was the tour of the southern park in Yellowstone with a very knowledgeable guide from Xanterra and being in a group of just six tourists (the elderly couple remained in the motel).

The Exiled Eight minus one

• Two night stay in spectacular Glacier National Park, Montana with complete sightseeing including the famed red 'Jammer' buses over the extraordinary Going to the Sun Highway.

The truth: We left our hotel at 8:00 AM in West Yellowstone arriving at Mammoth Hot Springs with just enough time to transfer luggage and go to the restroom. Our lunch stop was 15 minutes at a Quiznos for 53 people. We arrived at East Glacier around 7:45 PM where we were allowed to go to dinner while the bus unloaded the other passengers at their hotel. We got back on the bus at 8:54 PM for our trip to Many Glacier Hotel.

Our driver was told that the trip was 35-minutes and his directions were to drive past the third stop-light and turn left at the tepee. We were in the dark in a raging thunderstorm with 37 mph winds and with someone who was not feeling well. The lack of signage when we reached a T-intersection resulted in a turn in the wrong direction. None of us, including a very tired driver, had any idea of exactly where we were. Once turned around and back in the right direction after a stop at a gas station, we had to strain our eyes to finally see a sign for the Many Glacier Valley, still not sure we were on the right road. We arrived at the hotel at 11:20 PM.  We had been travelling for 15 hours.

If we were not upset enough at this point, more was to come. In the morning we were told by the hotel manager that a 'Jammer' bus would take us to St. Mary's where we would meet the other tour members. We were to see part of the 'highway' trip, stop for lunch at Lake McDonald, cruise and then go on the 'Jammer' to Glacier Hotel. At that time, around 6 PM, we would transfer to another 'Jammer' to finish the 'Highway' tour, and then return to our hotel.

Around 6:30, when no one was there to transport us, I approached our 'manager'.  I asked where our 'Jammer' was to finish the drive back to St. Mary's area and then to our hotel. He asked me who said we were going back at that time and I explained that we were told that in the morning. He said no one should have told us that and that we were to have dinner at 7:30 and then go back to our hotel - at least an hour away!

By this time we were all ready to kill. Finally, a 'Jammer' driver said he would take us back. By this time, there were only four of us. The older couple had stayed at the hotel all day since the gentleman was still ill. Another couple had gone off to pick up their rental car. We got in the 'Jammer' and the driver asked us if we had a pass to get back in the park. Well, of course we didn't. The bus driver had that so we went looking for him.

Our driver said he had it and would take us back. We told him to go eat his dinner and then we decided to go into the hotel and get dinner also. What we found interesting is that everyone but us had pre-ordered dinner and we had no dinner vouchers. It seemed obvious that there was no intent to ever include us in the dinner, but we told the waiter to bill Uncommon Journeys and we sat down. We invited our bus driver to sit with us, we ate our dinner and we went back to our hotel.

The drive back to Many Glacier took one hour and ten minutes, in daylight and knowing where we were going. No way was this a 35-minute drive.

• Train travel from Glacier National Park to Chicago ... aboard the 'Empire Builder' train, an overnight ride ...

The rest of the saga: We left our hotel at 7:15 AM to head down to East Glacier and the train station. Our bus driver left us at the station with our luggage. We figured we would wait there for our tour 'manager' to show up with our tickets. Unfortunately, the station was closed and I needed to use the rest room so I was going to walk up to the hotel. While debating what to do with my luggage, a man on the platform, 'Don', said to just leave it next to the wall. One of the other 'exiled eight' saw his shirt that said 'Uncommon Journeys' and said that she would under no circumstances have anything to do with his company. He retorted that he could not believe that a Southern woman would speak like that. He said that he had heard about our little group. As we walked away we heard him say, 'Wait till they find out we are in a private train car and they are not'. It sounded like something a ten-year-old would say on the playground.

I reached the hotel but the tour 'manager' was off at an annex building, so I went down there on the bus along with the elderly couple to find him. I asked for our tickets and was told to wait while he loaded the luggage on the bus. Finally, tickets in hand, I was ready to head home.

This was without a doubt the worst travel experience I have ever had and that includes experiencing Hurricane Lenny aboard a cruise ship and Hurricane Ophelia in Nova Scotia. If they had just said at the beginning of the trip that they had overbooked and were willing to offer cash compensation, I am sure some folks would have opted out of the large group. But to just randomly grab eight passengers and act like they were doing us a big favor, 'upgrade' as they called it, was downright fraud in my opinion. 

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